Friday, October 29, 2010

Arguing over men’s rights during Domestic Violence Awareness Month (by Suzie)

Do domestic violence programs ignore men who are victims of women? Your answer may depend on whether you think feminism should focus on a gendered analysis of women in society or feminism must fight all injustices equally. We’ve often discussed these definitions on this blog.

Or, perhaps you're a feminist who thinks feminism has gone too far, with society now discriminating against men, at least in some areas. Jan Brown, executive director of the Domestic Abuse Helpline for Men and Women, seems to fall into this category. She says she’s a feminist but doesn’t want women to dominate services anymore than she wants men to dominate.

Brown says she founded the helpline 10 years ago after a friend, a man abused by a woman, could find little help. Her web site says: “We specialize in offering supportive services to men abused by their female intimate partners.” The site lists resources where male victims can find help, including a lawyer who helps men fight false allegations of abuse and a law firm that has a father’s rights blog and “works hard to offset gender bias that minimizes or trivializes the importance of good men.”

The board of directors includes David Burroughs, who chairs, or chaired, the Community Forum for Equity and Fairness in Family Issues. Some perceive him as a men’s rights advocate.

“We’ve gotten a lot of negative feedback,” Brown says. Some critics see her in league with men’s rights advocates, but she says her national nonprofit doesn’t get into issues of child support and paternity, for example. “We’re not men’s righters. I stay away from them. I don’t agree with what they do.” But “I know those guys because who else would talk to me in the beginning?”

The Maine organization was originally called the Domestic Abuse Helpline for Men. It sued the Maine Coalition to End Domestic Violence in 2004 because the coalition only accepted programs that focused on women and their children. (For more, see Trish Wilson's blog.) Brown’s organization added “women” to its name in 2005.

A lawsuit initiated by another group claiming discrimination against men was mentioned in an interview with “Mr. Custody Coach.” Brown said: “It is unfortunate this is what we have to do in order to get equal services for men and women, but this is how the battered women’s movement also, you know, got services for women …”

Here’s some history of that movement: Wife-beating was legal and encouraged to discipline women in the U.S., as it was in many countries. In the 19th century, if women escaped abusive husbands, authorities were empowered to bring them back, just as they might a runaway child. SafeNetwork: California's Domestic Violence Resource has a timeline:

In 1871, “Alabama is the first state to rescind the legal right of men to beat their wives.” In 1882, Massachusetts makes wife-beating a crime. In 1911, “the first family court is created in Buffalo, NY.” This begins the diversion of wife-beating from the criminal courts, resulting in lesser penalties for beating a wife than a stranger. In 1966, “beating, as cruel and inhumane treatment, becomes grounds for divorce in New York, but the plaintiff must establish that a 'sufficient' number of beatings have taken place.” In 1967, “the state of Maine opens one of the first shelters in the United States.” It wasn’t until 1993 that “marital rape became a crime in all 50 states.”

Mary Cleary, founder of AMEN, a support program for men abused by women in Ireland, is on the helpline’s advisory board. She cowrote the book “That Bitch”:
Domestic violence in particular is NOT a gender issue as so many women’s groups claim. Women initiate violence against men as much as men initiate violence against women. Anyone who claims something different is either ill-informed or is deliberately perpetrating a lie. This ‘man-bashing’ propaganda is a disgrace and a travesty.
Also on the helpline’s advisory board is Murray Straus, a well-known sociologist who created the Conflict Tactics Scale and says women are as violent toward intimate partners as men are.

“But who dies? It’s usually women. That’s pretty solid data,” says Linda Osmundson, executive director of CASA (Community Action Stops Abuse) in St. Petersburg. (Linda is a friend of mine, and I'm on her side in this post. Nevertheless, I want to explore the arguments.)

Critics of the Conflict Tactics Scale note that surveys often don’t reach women who have fled their homes. The violence may be taken out of context, such as whether it’s a pattern of behavior. Women are more likely to fear violence by men than vice versa. For other arguments, see sociologist Michael Kimmel's book “The Gendered Society.”

Brown agrees that “women are the most injured and prevalent victims,” as she wrote in a letter printed in both metro Tampa Bay newspapers. I blogged about the letter last Friday because a local woman put her name on it to increase its chances of being printed.

Brown suggested some feminists are stuck in time, still blaming domestic violence on patriarchy. She thinks it accounts for little violence now. She attributes most interpersonal violence to mental-health, substance-abuse and relationship problems. Her treasurer, Stan Weeber, went further. He has blogged:
… a feminist perspective … blames patriarchy exclusively for the appearance of abuse, and closes the mind of the director and the community at large to alternative explanations.
Most abusive men test in the normal range, Osmundson responds. Drugs and alcohol can worsen violence, she says, but that doesn’t explain why some men feel entitled to control and abuse women. History and culture can explain it, however. For example, she says, many people still interpret their religions as saying that men should be the head of their households and women should submit. She remembers when census takers would mark down her husband as the head of the household.

Brown says only a small percentage of the nation’s shelters help men. That’s not true anymore, Osmundson says, acknowledging that CASA wasn’t always open to men. “We’re much more sophisticated than we used to be.” In addition to men abused by women, CASA helps people who have experienced same-sex violence. (Brown’s helpline also offers resources to LGBT people.)

All seven domestic-violence programs in the Tampa Bay area have “provisions to service men,” Osmundson says, and CASA trains its staff to work with any victims. Services include helping men get injunctions, she says, but most of those men are gay.

CASA has dormitory-style housing, and if she puts a man in a unit, the other beds go empty, unless the man has brought children that can occupy them. Taking in one man could mean several women lose out. But this is a rare problem -- a man requests shelter only every five years or so, she says.

Female abuse of men is “highly underreported,” Brown says, because abused men know that they will face skepticism. When programs focus on women, “why would a guy even think he’s welcome there?” She asks: Why must domestic violence programs focus on any one group?

Hers does. Although the home page says everyone is "offered the same respect and support," it also says the nonprofit specializes in men, and its resources are geared to men. I called its helpline and got a message saying women might want to call the National Domestic Violence Hotline (which, by the way, is celebrating its 15th anniversary). The helpline's home page asks people to light a virtual candle for male victims. If I were a battered woman, I would go somewhere else.

Nevertheless, I do understand the need for programs to reach different populations. Just as Brown created the helpline to help men, people built shelters for women who had nowhere else to turn. Because women earn less money on average, and are less likely to work outside the home, it may be harder for abused women to find a place to stay. For example, there are more homeless shelters focused on men than women.

Brown considers a program in Lancaster, Calif., a model because it welcomes both men and women. Valley Oasis helps “people who have suffered violence and are homeless.” Support groups consist of both men and women. Clients have private cottages, not dormitories. CEO Carol (Ensign) Crabson is one of the advisors for the National Coalition For Men, San Diego Chapter, according to a letter online. Crabson has said that domestic abuse of men is “a problem of similar magnitude” to abuse of women.

“About a third of the men or less who sought help” from hotlines, domestic-violence agencies and/or police said they were blamed in some fashion, reports Denise Hines, who has researched “men who sustain intimate partner violence” with a grant from the National Institute of Mental Health. Clark, a research assistant professor in psychology at Clark University who did postdoctoral research under Murray Straus, is on the helpline’s advisory board.
… 302 men participated in an online survey; we recruited them through advertising on websites that dealt primarily with men’s issues and through the Domestic Abuse Helpline for Men and Women.
In her survey, “67.2% reported that they were falsely accused of beating their wives.”

Psychologist Michael Murphy, also on the helpline's advisory board, has described Brown inviting him to a conference on male victims, and how she had just spoken to a man who had not seen his children for seven years because of “false allegations of abuse.”

Isn’t it likely that men who are accused of abuse would find authorities less trusting of their own allegations of abuse? Isn’t it possible that men who get help from hotlines, agencies and police are less likely to hang out on sites about men’s issues or to call Brown’s helpline? In other words, couldn’t the survey method have tainted the results?

Many female victims also think the system has failed them. Many feel that people are blaming them in some way, such as suggesting they should have known the man was dangerous, they should have left, they shouldn't have been drinking or drugging, they shouldn't have provoked him, etc. Women fail to seek help for various reasons, Osmundson says.

If a woman is ashamed to have a failed marriage, if she fears that a male judge won't believe her, if a policeman thinks a big man can't be the victim of a small woman, if a man thinks he must be strong and tough it out, how is gender not involved?

The helpline's “volunteer team” is mostly women. Because of a lack of money, they can rarely pay for services, such as bus fare, food or a hotel, Brown says.

Men predominate in state legislatures, Congress and the criminal justice system. They hold the top jobs in religion and the media. Most of the top CEOs are men. I'm all for abused men getting services they need. Instead of accusing women of being discriminatory, however, why don't men give the time and money to help other men?
I interviewed Brown and Osmundson last week. This week, a man in Tampa shot his former girlfriend in the face and killed her. Then he crashed a car into a house, killing himself. The woman, a nurse with an autistic child, had gotten an injunction for protection a month ago. The man had custody of a daughter from a previous relationship. The mother of his daughter had been denied an injunction for protection in 1999, but was granted a one-year injunction in 2001. In 2009, the mother of his son was denied an injunction.